A Jewish Guilt About Anti-Semitism
By Carol Smaldino
I am a secular and visceral Jew and I don’t think I am alone in my history of guilt about the topic of Anti-Semitism, so prominent in our news headlines as we speak.
I have come, over the last several years to see matters in what seem to be a bit more clearly. I don’t see Anti-Semitism as worse than any other kind of racial hatred or genocide, but neither do I need or want to minimize its importance.
The first stories I learned about Christianity had to do with my father. On Easter Sunday, so my father told me, in the now Ukrainian city of Odessa, it was not uncommon for soldiers of the Tsar to go to Mass, hear stories about the Jews killing Christ, get drunk and go into Jewish communities and kill some of the people (Jews) there.
My father came to the United States from what was then Russia at five years old early in the twentieth century. Early on I liked being Jewish; in fact Hebrew school and synagogue seemed emotionally more reliable and pleasurable than did the chaotic atmosphere in my home of origin. I liked hearing the bits of Yiddish and eating what seemed like the most wonderful of food for holidays. And I think I pretty secretly admired the rather blatant intelligence of many Jews around me, in my classes in particular. I didn’t realize that the thirst for knowledge and education was part of the drill of any level of religious training; I simply was proud.
What I didn’t like was the hate I seemed to be induced to drink in, of the Germans in particular. Imagine this: a social science class at Brooklyn College where young freshmen, mostly Jewish students, tried to convince our history professor that the bulk of Germans during World War II were not “willing executioners” but rather people who did not know what was going on. The teacher tore down our arguments, one by one. But we didn’t give up with conviction; we didn’t want to inherit a blame we ourselves didn’t really feel — at least those of us who had not lost friends or relatives to the concentration camps. I think we felt guilty for prejudice that wasn’t authentically ours, so we may have pushed it away.
We didn’t want to refrain from buying Loden coats, the German made cool green hooded winter coats, or collude with our parents to erect a ban on the buying of German cars. In some ways, we were in denial too, which was made easier by our ability to imagine parts of New York City, at the very least where Jews were in the majority, as part of the norm. To hear about an uncle of mine who had to change his name from Wilensky to Wilen so he could get a job as a shoe salesman, seemed hard to really take in.
New York (okay my neighborhood) was a bubble as was a lot of the entertainment we imbibed on television: the Jewish comics who made us feel more of the same way, at home. Where were all the black people in my childhood? Not anywhere really, and that became another part of my guilt about feeling resentful about what seemed even an archaic preoccupation about anti-Semitism.
When I found out more about segregation and white sadism towards Black people, there was another kind of guilt. Yes, I hadn’t been a slave owner, but I was one of the privileged. And I roiled inside when I heard an adult call the black cleaning person “girl” as just one example.
There are so many jokes about Jewish guilt but I think many people who know about it see it as a truism. If I have too much, and you don’t, I feel guilty, though it’s only if I’m aware. And so it becomes a contest for self-righteousness, joining organizations that uphold the rights of poorer people and those prejudiced against — which is easier and makes us feel better if we are geographically further away.
Then comes the guilt about Israel. Where does a Jew stand on the “Israel” questions? I didn’t like, maybe I even hated being expected to hate Arabs, or pushed to see anyone as the enemy. I saw/heard the Arabs wanted to destroy Israel, and then I began to hear that Israel had robbed Palestinians of land and of dignity and often enough of life. And then I heard that if I was a defender of Palestinian rights even in opinion I was an Anti-Semite. And then there was the implication that if I didn’t hate Israel I was something else bad, maybe even a fascist.
In my own attempts to understand the hatreds and polarizations of our times, particularly in America, I began to go back to some of the literature that I had found compelling about twenty years ago or so, and that remains vivid in my memory. I read about the Polish village where half the villagers killed the other half where the bystander Nazi soldiers took amused photos (Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland, Jan T. Gross, Penguin, 2002). I read about the aspect of morality, though it was so twisted, of Nazi philosophy. I read again about the history of hatred of Jews extending to issues of hatred of Jews as moneylenders, as Christ killers, and of course as deniers, “refusers” of Christianity as many Jews insisted on their own set of covenants with their one God.
Now we have a President who says the Democrats have banished God from their landscape, and I can feel a fear well up inside of me. I know there is a march against anti-Semitism tomorrow that crosses the Brooklyn Bridge, and I am wishing I could be there instead of far away in Colorado (and yes I’m partial).
A President who says there is no God in the Democratic Party is talking of a Christian God. And even if Evangelicals support the Republicans big time, that is because the yearning for Apocalypse and a Second Coming of Jesus, depends on Israel/the Jews controlling the Middle East.
On the final page of her brilliant book The Nazi Conscience, Duke Professor Claudia Koonz writes as follows:
“The potential for racial hatred lurks whenever political leaders appeal to the exalted virtue of their own ethnic community…Evil presents itself as unalloyed ethnic good… ethnic fundamentalism merges politics and religion within a crusade to defend values and authentic traditions that appear to be endangered.” (Harvard University Press, 2003, p. 274)
This is not a time I feel, for comparisons that have to do with who deserves the most worry, sympathy, protection. It is more about our living in a time where it is too tempting to blame and demonize the other.
Hatred, Anti-Semitism, racism, hatred of the other who is different in some way, is old. We need to rediscover it, and as a wise therapy patient of mine reminds me, we need to come to know the Nazi in us as well. Or else we will not only hate and blame the other but hunger for that other to justify our insecurities — insecurities which we need to work through by honesty and support rather than the easier impulses of hatred.